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Wednesday, January 4th, 2006


The twentieth century was nasty and brutish. Mercifully, it was also short.

It is popular among historians to say that the nineteenth century ended only with the Guns of August but that trendiness should not obscure the truth of that statement. The Great War was not only a physical catastrophe for European civilization but a profoundly moral one because the universal conception of war at the time owed more to romantic myths of the charge of the Light Brigade than to brigadiers of the artillery. Had the Europeans learned from the American experience at Petersburg, they might have pulled back from the brink. Or pursued their war aims with less zeal and greater thought.

Instead of a pageant of gallantry, or a quick victory as at Sedan, Europe experienced slaughter on an industrial scale. As the eminent military historian John Keegan wrote of the Germans:

” Year groups 1892-1895, men who were between nineteen and twenty-two when the war broke out, were reduced by 35-37 per cent. Overall, of the sixteen milion born betwen 1870 and 1899, 13 percent were killed, at the rate of 465,600 for each year the war lasted. The heaviest casualties, as in most armies, fell among the officers, of whom 23 per cent – 25 per cent of regular officers – as against 14 percent of enlisted men “

The aristocratic class structure of Great Britain broke at the Somme, lingering on only in form but not in substance. The First World War ended cultural illusions about the nature of Western society as Europe followed democratic America and socialist Russia and openly entered Ortega y Gasset’s new age of the Mass-man. The power of thoroughly “massified” modern societies enlisted for war dwarfed even the Great War and was carried out to its logical conclusion at Hiroshima. The twentieth century was, a root, an era of zero-sum conflict on the grand strategic scale. Philip Bobbitt terms it ” The Long War” which balances the ” Long Peace” that had followed Waterloo.

It is arguable- though not yet proven – that the global paradigm of the Mass-man, nation-state died in 1991 along with the Soviet empire, the Cold War rule-set and the information monopoly of the media elite. I certainly believe this to be so as we not only have a void where great centripetal forces once stood but globalization and the internet have rushed in to ” de-massify” modern society, creating a grand economic integration even as political disintegration permits individuals and groups the autonomy to create new kinds of networks with new rule-sets to govern not a society of states but a system of systems.

Something new is coming and many of the old tools for political and strategic analysis are not going to be enough. We cannot throw them out entirely – Realpolitik, Liberalism, Game Theory – all retain their uses but it is becoming evident that these traditional paradigms do not suffice to explain al Qaida ‘s behavior much less its next move. We need to look at the world systemically as interrelationships of dynamic networks and include concepts like “emergence“, ” resilience” and “consilience” on our intellectual palette. The deep methodological compartmentalization that prevails in the social sciences and between science and the humanities must be abandoned if we are to see the world more clearly. Power laws govern more widely than at just the nano level.

A new world requires, if not new eyes, at least some new vision.

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